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Film Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018; Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coen Brothers’ Netflix streaming-series-turned-anthology-film is at once a deconstruction of the Hollywood western and a sincere homage to the genre, all while remaining indelibly and profoundly Coens. This would mean that it involves peculiar characters, eccentric language, assured storytelling, deep film-history literacy, sudden violence both comic and shocking, woolly philosophical musings on existential questions and human nature, and a keen sense of the fickle, unpredictable, badly-bent arc of the moral universe. This latter element winds like a scarlet thread woven with dark humour and unruly melancholy through the six stories of The Ballad of Ballad Scruggs, which otherwise lack any sort of narrative unity or coherence (as would befit the anthological episodes the film was conceived as and edited down to feature-length form). These vignettes range from wacky send-ups of generic tropes to exquisitely-wrought parables of human want and drive to wordy chamber pieces to cause-and-effect escalations with tragic dimensions. But they always retain an internal logic of momentum and direction, a force and counter-force progression of choices and events unmoored from moral consequences and judgements of cosmic justice; indeed, they often brazenly thumb their collective noses at the sense of a moral order.

Like crime films, the western, whose physical and social setting is on the frontier of human order and American law, has long fascinated the Coens as an ideal cinematic playground for the lawless disorder that characterizes their perspective on the moral universe as an arbitrary, unfeeling, and above all dangerous and destructive place, for anyone foolish enough to cling to notions of human decency and goodness as well as for those who would discard those things with selfish callousness. The argument could be made that some of the Coens’ best films were westerns, or perhaps westerns in disguise: of course True Grit and No Country For Old Men qualify on a base level, but Raising ArizonaO Brother, Where Art Thou? and even Fargo encompass major elements of tales of black-hat frontier lawlessness coming up against white-hat individualist rectitude. Unlike classic John Ford westerns, which tended to valourize American mythic values in an idealized wilderness, Coens westerns are ambiguous and iconoclastic, destabilizing conceptions of reliable Middle-American civilized decency and moral codes in the milieu of the winner-take-all Wild West.

From the opening (and titular) segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens summon up all of the stereoscopic grandeur of the big-screen American western and proceed to deftly and humiliatingly pants it in front of the world. In a comic inflation of the genre’s dominant tropes, the titular outlaw Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson, whose Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother remains one of the most perfect comic characters in the brothers’ oeuvre) rides through picturesque Monument Valley on his favourite horse in white cowboy suit and hat, strumming a guitar and singing a cowpoke ballad. He comes across as a less acrobatic iteration of Alden Ehrenreich’s crooning cowboy screen figure from the Coens’ last send-up of Hollywood convention, Hail, Caesar! But there’s a meaner streak lurking in this crooning cowboy dubbed a misanthrope on his wanted poster, a characterization with which Scruggs quibbles before proving it to be disturbingly correct.

When he speaks, it’s in a jocular, verbose dialect of old-fashioned American colloquial, peppering good-natured politeness with smiling insults for the hard cases in a pair of saloons who blithely threaten and fatally underestimate him. As adept with a shooting iron as with a tune, Scruggs dispatches his antagonists with wide-grinning casualness and graphic violence at once cartoonish and visceral that, one could argue, exposes the dark, violent, even genocidal underpinnings of the manifest destiny of westward expansion and the subsequent scrubbed-clean romanticizing of that movement of conquest and plunder. As it stands, this segment carries a cloaked harsh message about the survivalist continuity of killing in this realm of frontier law behind some of the most gloriously funny sight gags ever crafted by the Coens, or by anyone else, for that matter (including one involving Clancy Brown and a table that is a five-alarm hoot-and-holler classic and I would not dream of spoiling for anyone).

The five vignettes that follow rise and dip in tone and subject matter (though never in quality) like the peaks and valleys of the western landscape, but deepen the engagement with generic tropes and broaden the scope of the Coens’ chosen themes, which for all of the quixotic specificity of their characters operate on the level of the universal.

  • “Near Algodones” casts James Franco as a would-be bank robber who whiplashes from luckless to highly fortunate at breakneck speed. His heist location proves poorly chosen when the talkative bank teller – played with loopy inspiration by another O Brother cast member, the American treasure of a character actor Stephen Root – displays fiendish defensive ingenuity, and the robber is then embroiled in consecutive hanging scenes that emphasize the role of chance in a random universe.
  • “Meal Ticket” is the first of two consecutive stories featuring scant dialogue and masterful visual storytelling. It casts Liam Neeson as a grizzled travelling impresario who tours frontier towns presenting the oratorical recitations of a disabled English thespian (Harry Melling) to gauping locals, part highbrow theatre and part carnival freak show. The crowds begin to dwindle, and the Coens present the shifting emotions and foreshadowed end between the two men (who never speak a word to each other) through varying excerpts of the actor’s recitations, namely Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”, the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, Shakespearean plays, and the Gettysburg Address. They also have Neeson, a Catholic Northern Irishman who played Michael freakin’ Collins for Pete’s sake, drunkenly belt out a ribald Unionist tune. Their sense of humour always comes with teeth.
  • In “All Gold Canyon”, Tom Waits is a grizzled solitary old prospector (a stretch for him, I know, but he’s actually quite excellent) digging for gold in an idyllic green valley. He mutters to himself and talks endearing to the golden vein he’s looking for, calling it Mr. Pocket and promising to find it. This deceptively simple yarn turns into a biting commentary on the nature of American capitalism before its end, however.
  • “The Gal Who Got Rattled” follows a match of convenience that moves towards budding romance before terminating in tragedy on an Oregon-bound wagon train. Zoe Kazan is Alice Longabaugh, heading west with her would-be entrepreneur brother (Jefferson Mays) and his yappy dog President Pierce. She chats tentatively and gains the aid and eventual admiration of the train’s driver Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), but a Native American raid throws all into doubt.
  • The enigmatic closing section, “The Mortal Remains”, is a mini-play set on a stagecoach. Five mismatched passengers – bounty hunters Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson, pearl-clutching bible-thumper Tyne Daly, flippant bon vivant Frenchman Saul Rubinek, and tediously talky breaded trapper Chelcie Ross – exchange their life stories along with increasingly philosophical views on love, knowledge, human nature, and mortality. They end their journey struck dumb by Gleeson warbling a mournful Irish ballad before dragging the body of their bounty into their shared hotel with his boss O’Neill.

Given all of this, what is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, after all? As an episodic series boiled down to a feature film, it ought to be a mess, and it certainly does not cohere like a normal film might be expected to do. But the Coens time and again return to the same thematic obsessions, the same moral and philosophical questions, so the six sections present as jazzy variations on a single theme. They are all entertaining, involving, amusing, or moving in some way or other; we as viewers are always engaged and trusted, never condescended to but forever respected and given space to consider, to interpret, maybe to understand.

More than anything, the use of songs, curated as ever by longtime Coens musical collaborator Carter Burwell, binds these segments to each other as well via notes of wistful longing. The movie itself, as the title indicates, is a ballad, and so one might productively think of its six parts as verses in a single story-song, with lines emphasizing common feelings and ideas but lacking a shared chorus to return to. Another recent Coens highlight, Inside Llewyn Davis, was structured narratively and thematically with the circularity of a folk song, after all. This, perhaps, is the best way to make final sense of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is in any case yet another rich and rewarding gift to movie lovers from two of the pre-eminent working artists of the modern American cinema.

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